I’m cheating on my husband and loving it. Is that a problem?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 9, 2007

I’ve been a cheater since my very first boyfriend and no one has ever found out.


Cary,

I am a cheater. I’ve never had a boyfriend or husband that I didn’t cheat on. When I was younger, it would just be making out behind a boyfriend’s back; as I got older, I would sleep with men that were not my husband. I am also a “lapper,” in that I tend to start a new relationship while still in the previous one.

I’ve been with my current husband for almost seven years and married for two. We started dating while I was with my first husband. I would imagine he could infer from how our relationship began that I am not the most faithful of types, but I don’t believe he suspects anything. And for the first five or six years of our relationship I was faithful.

Then last year, I slipped back into my old ways. No particular reason why — I love my husband and am still very happy with him — but an opportunity arose to sleep with an old friend, and I didn’t want to pass it up. That seemed to give me a free pass to fool around with other men — another old friend (just out of curiosity), random men in bars (for fun), a client (terribly unethical, but that makes it even more exciting).

The strange thing is that I really don’t feel any guilt. And I don’t want to leave my husband. I’ve never been caught and I don’t think I ever will be. I really haven’t had any fallout from these illicit acts — it hasn’t affected my work or my personal life. Part of me thinks I do it because I always act so responsible and upstanding in all other parts of my life — that I need some sort of release. I suspect I may stop if we have kids (we’re in our mid-30s), but I don’t really see a reason to. Is there something wrong with me?

Cheater

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Dear Cheater,

You have three choices. You can split up with your husband so that you are free to engage in these activities without causing great emotional harm to others; you can confront your husband about this behavior and tell him that you’ve been in the grip of something seriously injurious to him and you’re scared and you want to make it right and stay together; or you can secretly begin working with someone qualified to help you understand and change your behavior and figure out, as you go along, how to disentangle yourself from this behavior and do the least amount of damage possible, with the likelihood of eventual disclosure.

Whichever option you choose, you must understand this: The current situation is untenable. You’re just playing the odds right now, and you have been lucky. Luck is not a workable plan.

So the choice is yours. Not knowing you in particular, or your husband, and having no overarching moral belief about monogamy, I can’t say which choice is best. You are a free being. I do believe, though, from an ethical standpoint, that if you want to continue as you are, you have to become unmarried.

On the other hand, if you want to change your behavior, then you either have to tell your husband what has been going on now, or you have to enter into a course of therapy or deliberation or counseling of some sort.

Those are the choices, my friend. They are fairly stark. They are not great. About all they have to recommend them is that they are preferable to maintaining the present course.

I am not even remotely qualified to diagnose people psychologically. But I will say that it crossed my mind that you might be one of the estimated 4 percent of Americans who are sociopaths. But a quick read of an interview with author Martha Stout, who wrote “The Sociopath Next Door” and who popularized that statistic, led me to believe that, because you have recognized that you have a problem, you are probably not a true sociopath.

Here are the relevant passages from Sara Eckel’s 2005 Salon interview with Stout:

“What makes you decide that a person is or isn’t a sociopath?” Eckel asks.

“Conceptually, for the purposes of the book,” says Stout, “I’m talking about people who have exhibited symptoms such as extreme chronic deceitfulness, lack of remorse, lack of personal responsibility, and a general desire to control people and make them jump.”

Deceit, Stout says, is the central behavior of sociopathy: “More scientifically, the best I can offer is the rule of three. If someone lies to you once or twice, it could be a misunderstanding. If someone lies to you three times, then chances are you’re dealing with a liar. And deceit is the central behavior of sociopathy.”

Based on that, my thought was, wow, maybe you are a sociopath! But read on:

“What I have found,” Stout says, “and what breaks my heart, is that I’m hearing from good people who are afraid that they are sociopaths. They are feeling disconnected from people for a variety of reasons and are questioning their own dark sides. But if you’re questioning your attachments to others and questioning your dark side, you don’t have very much of one. That is not a concern that a sociopath would have.”

So, my friend, according to this expert, if you are writing to me, you are probably not a sociopath.

“Do you ever see sociopaths in therapy?” asks Eckel.

“Not unless the court refers them,” Stout says. “They feel just fine about themselves.”

They feel just fine about themselves! Actually, it sounds like you feel pretty darned good about yourself, considering. But you had the wisdom to compare your behavior with that of others and ask if anything is wrong. So perhaps you are simply a person who has a functioning conscience but is caught up in a habitual behavior from which you simply have not yet had any educational consequences, such as losing a husband or a job, or being ostracized, or feeling in deep emotional pain.

As I say, I’m not qualified to say. I do think, however, that if consequences happen, and you are not a sociopath, you are going to feel it acutely, and it is not going to be pretty. And you are going to hurt a lot of people.

So best to take steps now.

I’m a compulsive liar

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 18, 2005

My deceptions are elaborate and crazy but I can’t seem to stop.


Dear Cary,

I don’t really know what good this will do; I just think I need to tell someone, some soul, the truth about who I am.

Ever since the 10th grade or so (I’m just shy of my mid-20s now), I have been a compulsive liar, a thief and a bit of a manipulator. So far, this has ruined countless friendships, several long-term relationships and one marriage. Sometimes the motivation is laziness, sometimes it’s all in the noble spirit of braggadocio, sometimes it’s just because I can or because I relish the simple thrill of getting away with something. I don’t really know why.

It’s been suggested that this compulsion is some simple misfiring somewhere deep in my brain and that with adequate therapy and chemical treatment, I could eventually become an honest person. I believe this is incorrect. I would love to believe that it’s not my fault; however, I go to extraordinary lengths to flesh out and protect my larger lies.

For example, I don’t think my ex-wife was aware of the fact that for nearly three years I’d go to local libraries to read up on the subjects I was supposedly formally studying, and that I was researching the local university’s infrastructure, geography and staff so I could keep up the illusion that I went there. I even went so far as to manufacture homework, quizzes, projects, transcripts and FASFA forms for myself.

I find myself moving from city to city to city, feeling that if I only start fresh somewhere, and just tell the truth to everyone, they’ll like me for who I am and not for the person I’ve crafted. And it always starts the same way everywhere I go. I always feel like my character needs a little more fleshing out, a little more motivation, and so I’ll concoct a long, involved story that neatly corresponds with easily verifiable data.

I sometimes think that perhaps I’m a sociopath, or that I’m a narcissist, or some -path or -ist that I don’t know, but it hurts me every time I do this, every time I lie or I cheat or I steal or hurt someone. I love my friends and my family and I wish they could know who I am, and not who I made up, but for some reason deep inside of me, that can’t be and I don’t really know why.

I don’t really know if there’s any advice to be given, or if there is, that I’d have balls enough to follow it. I suppose I just want to know if there’s still some hope for me to become a good person.

Tired and Twisted

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Dear Tired and Twisted,

I think you should see a specialist. However entertaining my words may be, they are vastly insufficient to the task of rescuing you. So let us assume that I have advised you to seek out a specialist in compulsive behavior and that you have agreed to do so. OK? You’ll go get some help, right? You’re not just telling me that? You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?

Now then. I would say this to you: Stop accepting the bribe. That is, stop accepting the payoff of your behavior. For years you have been carrying around a plain unexceptional self disguised as an immensely clever young man. Say goodbye to that clever young man. Now begins the era of the regular you. Discard the enhanced version of yourself. Starve it out. Refuse to take pleasure in it. Take pleasure only in things that are true. Say this to yourself: Only what is true is permitted. I will live secure in this little area of only the true.

Take a look at yourself unadorned. Take your unadorned self out on the street. Walk it around. See how it feels. Shave your head and only tell the truth for one day.

Admit all that is false. Admit it to anyone. If you like, admit it to me and I will keep your secrets.

There will be a cost. I’m saying start paying. Return uncashed all checks written on your false account.

Let the elaborate edifice finally fall: First comes tumbling down the facade. Then comes the whole building crashing down. Let it fall! Rejoice in the thunderous noise of its destruction! Clap your hands and sing!

Let it all fall down. Celebrate its demise. At the same time, toss into the fire all your false hope. You are not about to become a saint. You are simply a man discarding junk on the edge of town. Let go of grandiosity even in your hopes for the future. Envision a level world. Go to a neutral place. Do not believe in God nor not believe in God. Do not construct a belief in God or an idea of God. Leave God alone. Just dump the lies. Find a place in the ground and dump them there; find a place of ambivalent acceptance and cover it over with earth. Walk away quietly.

Don’t be so damned dramatic. Don’t go overboard. As I advised that person back in 2001, the trick is to cultivate an appreciation for the stupid tiny good things. “The facts of your life are fascinating if you cultivate them,” I wrote.

I still think it makes sense.

There are also some practical reasons for you to consult a specialist in compulsion: Eventually, if you do nothing, you may be arrested and charged with a crime. Eventually you may not be able to make a living. Eventually you may fail to amuse even yourself. Eventually you may forget who you are. Eventually you may fall apart. Eventually it will be much less fun than it is now. So it’s obvious you have to change.

So that is the program of change I envision for you: Good-faith work with a talented specialist; a radical jettisoning of accumulated falsehood; a coming clean, a time of reckoning, perhaps a series of ritual burials, a program of regular work and ongoing accounting, at the end of which you should have a story to tell that is not only remarkable but true.

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